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Divorce, Israeli Style: Populace Loses Its Illusion About Politics

Among the stars of this year’s Israeli election campaign was a pair of senior citizens. Back in 1999, after being happily married for nearly 60 years, the husband asked his wife for the first time in their life together whom she voted for that year. She foolishly decided to answer: the Labor candidate, Ehud Barak. The husband, a devoted Likud supporter, sued for divorce.

The divorce proceedings continued right up to the 2003 elections. The woman sought reconciliation. The husband refused. They bickered live on every possible radio and television program, laying their quarrel before the nation’s conscience. In the past they would have been treated with some respect as two people ready to sacrifice their family life for their beliefs. But in the Israel of 2003 they became objects of pity, or ridicule.

No, the debates within Israeli society haven’t changed. But after two-and-a-half years of war, terrorism and economic decline, Israelis have lost their illusions. They are not apathetic, as some foreign correspondents mistakenly report; they are simply wiser. They don’t believe any politician possesses a magic cure for their problems. Relatively few were prepared this year to donate time or money to the party for which they were voting. This was the most alienated electorate in Israel’s history.

One person who chose to act differently was a senior prosecutor in the State Attorney’s Office, Liora Glatt-Berkovitz. In the heat of the campaign she handed over to Baruch Kra, a police reporter with the daily Ha’aretz, a secret document sent by the State Attorney’s Office to South African authorities in connection with suspected criminal activity by Prime Minister Sharon and his family.

Leaks of classified information to the news media are part of Israel’s political culture. Some call them the lubricating oil of democracy — they prevent the institutions of government from rusting. They make up for the relative weakness of other oversight systems in Israeli public life. Successive Israeli governments have treated leaks as though they were a force of nature. No one has really tried to close the tap.

This leak was an exception. It broke the rules. First, Glatt-Berkovitz was the prosecutor in charge of the Sharon investigation. Her job was to protect the probe’s secrecy, not to expose it. Second, disclosing unverified suspicions against the prime minister on the eve of an election was likely to affect and distort the outcome.

And then there was the prosecutor’s explanation. Asked to explain her motives, she said she wanted to bring down the prime minister for “ideological reasons.” “My son,” she explained, “is about to be inducted into the army, and I’m afraid Sharon will get him into a war.”

If the prosecutor had said, like Watergate’s mysterious “Deep Throat,” that she was driven by fear of an official cover-up, then at least part of the public would have accepted or at least understood her action. But her explanation left her isolated. (Her lawyer tried to claim, retroactively, that she had been driven additionally by fear that the investigation would be obstructed, but he spoke too late. In the court of public opinion, at least, she had lost her case.)

To understand the importance of the Glatt-Berkovitz affair, one must understand how the corruption issue came to dominate this year’s election campaign. In theory, this campaign was supposed to revolve around two themes: the confrontation with the Palestinians, against the backdrop of continuing terrorism and the American-European “road map,” and the government’s economic policy. In practice, the two themes surfaced only tangentially. The campaign’s most discussed theme was corruption, primarily among Likud central committee members but also in connection with the Labor primaries. As it turned out, the scandals did not have a decisive influence on voters’ behavior, at least not voters on the right. But they cast their shadow over every other topic.

For the last two months, reports on three separate investigations into alleged corruption by Sharon and his sons Omri and Gilad dominated the headlines. Omri Sharon, the prime minister’s elder son and himself a Knesset candidate, has been under police investigation for having allegedly used criminal underworld contacts to steer supporters toward his father. Meanwhile, the prime minister’s younger son, Gilad Sharon, has been under investigation on suspicion of bribery.

And the prime minister and both of his sons have been under investigation for their alleged involvement in yet another affair, this one arising from illegal contributions Sharon received for his 1999 party leadership challenge to Benjamin Netanyahu. This investigation was being conducted in secret, on the theory that if those involved were kept in the dark they would not be able to coordinate their testimony.

As the current campaign heated up, Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein ordered a freeze on most politically-related criminal probes until after the election. The decision was meant, in line with precedent, to prevent a flood of pre-election criminal complaints from being filed by opponents. The freeze included the investigations of Sharon and his sons.

By contrast, the investigation into the leak of the Sharon family probe was not frozen but pursued as a top priority. The attorney general was certain, he hinted publicly, that the source of the leak was in the police command. He appointed a special investigating team with broad powers. In the wee hours of January 22, six days before the election, he learned that the leak had come from within his own department. Rubinstein was so shocked, his aides said, that he wanted to “bang his head against the wall.”

The revelation of the leak’s source left a political stain on Rubinstein and the state attorney’s office, both of which place great stock in their scrupulously apolitical image. Furthermore, it put the ambitious attorney general — a veteran civil servant who is known to aspire to a seat on the Supreme Court — in the exquisitely awkward position of seeming to be hunting down the very politicians who hold the key to his career plans.

In recent years Israel’s entire justice system — the Supreme Court, the district courts and the prosecutor’s office — has been under serious attack from elements of the political system. The religious parties are incensed at what they consider the liberal worldview of the Supreme Court — whose justices are selected by a semi-political nominating committee — and outraged over prosecutions of some of their leading figures. The right has been angered by limits the Supreme Court sometimes places on the military. The whole judicial system, including the state attorney’s office — which oversees the prosecutorial system — has been tarred as “leftist.” Members of Sharon’s own election campaign team have taken to calling the prosecutors “the rule-of-law gang.”

And so the explanations that Glatt-Berkovitz gave for her actions fell on fertile soil on the Israeli right. The irony is that the prosecutor sacrificed her job, and perhaps her pension and her legal career, only to achieve the opposite of what she intended. The affair has tarred the state attorney’s office and the judicial system as a whole with an uncomfortably politicized image that will weaken its ability to enforce the law. Sharon was strengthened in the polls, and the odds of getting to the truth in the affair she was investigating have been reduced.

The damage doesn’t end there. The attorney general used controversial methods to expose the leak. He obtained a court order, based on questionable arguments, permitting investigators to examine the telephone records of the journalist who broke the story. Now Rubinstein, who sees himself as a defender of freedom of the press, has become its No. 1 enemy. The press council has accused him of trying to intimidate the press, and an association of teachers of communications has demanded his resignation.

The rule of law and freedom of the press are two essential components underpinning Israeli democracy. This affair has brought both into question. It’s doubtful whether the benefit of exposing the leak justified the long-term damage.

The telephone, whether corded or cellular, is the journalist’s main tool. If it is laid open before every prosecutor wishing to chase down a leak, journalists will have to rely on carrier pigeons. Even the prime minister will be afraid to talk to them.

Ariel Sharon loves to chat with journalists on the phone. Years ago, in one of his earlier governmental positions, he chatted with a journalist and sounded uncharacteristically cautious. “Are you afraid you’re being bugged?” the journalist asked. “No,” Sharon replied. “I’m afraid you’re being bugged.”

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